Friday, October 25, 2013

F4H Phantom II Ejection Seat History

One question that I have often seen asked on forums is:

"What ejection seat did the early F4Hs use?" 

It seems that various authors have given credit either to Stanley Aviation Company or McDonnell for making the original seat.  Well, actually both parties are right - somewhat.  Here is what I have been able to come up with from my reading and researching.

In 1955 McDonnell did give Stanley Aviation Company a contract for an F4H ejection seat.  But, according to what I have been able to find, this was not for a complete, turnkey ejection seat.  The Naval Air Material Center was to provide the explosive seat catapult and McDonnell was providing the seat pan that held the survival equipment and all the connections for the pilots pressure suit.  These connections were vitally important upon ejection because the pilot would depend on the pressure suit immediately after an ejection at high altitude and there needed to be a good separation on ejection from the air-conditioning system.  So there were some issues to be ironed out as the engineers at McDonnell tried to make the pan and all required connections fit the seat made by Stanley.  But in 1956 the F4H mockup board approved the cockpit with the Stanley / McDonnell seat.  And this was the seat that was used in the prototype and many of the pre-production aircraft.

So just how did the production aircraft end up with Martin-Baker seats? 

In August 1957 the Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) directed BuAer to use only "zero-zero" ejection seats in all future (and existing) aircraft projects.  This was because of the 265 Naval pilots that died in 1957, 172 died following aircraft problems at low altitude / low airspeed.  BuAer cobbled together a quick design competition and in May 1958 selected the Martin-Baker Mk.5 seat as their choice to be the standard seat in Naval combat aircraft.  All the airframe manufacturers were then notified to negotiate a contract with Martin-Baker to modify the seat to fit their aircraft. 

So then, why do we see the Stanley / McDonnell seat installed in F4H aircraft after that date? 

Well both McDonnell and Stanley had a lot of work and money tied up into their seat in design hours, manufacturing startup, and many, many hours testing and refining their seat.  To make matters worse, all that work and testing would have to be redone with a Martin-Baker seat installation.  Everything from fitting the seat into the airframe, controlling ejection sequences, ensuring that a ejection through the canopy was survivable, and a host of other engineering puzzles would have to be designed and thoroughly tested before putting a new seat into the aircraft.  And this came at a very inconvenient time for the F4H project as it would have delayed the first flight and some of the initial testing of the F4H.  In addition the Martin-Baker seat added 103 lbs. to the weight and $600,000.00 to the price tag of the Phantom.  So simply stated, McDonnell was very, very slow in making the change over.  And there really was no incentive to move quickly because BuAer was paying the bills for continuing development of the Stanley / McDonnell seat as a hedge against the possibility of a protracted development of the Martin-Baker seat for the F4H.  So it wasn't until December of 1960 that McDonnell finally canceled the contract with Stanley (although Stanley received a nice buy-out from BuAer since it was their directive that was forcing the change).

An interesting side note is that even though McDonnell had cancelled the contract, they still were not done with Stanley Aviation Company ejection seats completely. It seems that at some point there must have been thought given to using a Stanley escape capsule / seat  on proposed high performance models of the Phantom (possibly advanced interceptor proposals like the Model 98AL or 98CN).  Here are some pictures of the capsule in a mock-up of the forward fuselage of the F-4.

 It sure makes a tight cockpit a bit tighter!

  1. Engineering the F-4 Phantom II - Parts Into Systems, by Glenn E Bugos

Revision History:

10/25/2013 - Original Post
10/26/2013 - Added information about Ejection Capsule